Italian authorities are investigating the deaths of 26 teenage girls whose bodies were found in the Mediterranean Sea, NPR reports. Prosecutors believe they may have been sexually abused and murdered as they attempted to travel from Niger and Nigeria to Italy, according to the BBC.
The BBC also reported that five migrants are currently being questioned by Italian officials about the deaths. The victims ranged in age from 14 to 18. Autopsies will be conducted tomorrow, Salerno's head of police told CNN.
Prosecutors are investigating the possibility that the teenagers were victims of sex trafficking. According to a recent article published by Italian newspaper Corriere Della Sera, it's become increasingly common for Nigerian girls and women to be brought to Italy by sex traffickers.
"The rate of human trafficking continues to rise in Europe at a staggering rate, and many of these victims are coming from Nigeria. Indeed, in 2016 along, over 11,000 Nigerian women and girls either crossing the African continent or traveling by boat, arrived into Italy, where traffickers are waiting to ensnare and entrap them," Dr. John DeGarmo, human trafficking and leading foster care expert and Director of the Foster Care Institute said in an email statement to Refinery29.
"Many of these victims are fleeing a life of violence and extreme poverty for the promise of a better life style, of a dream of finding success. European nations such as Romania, Italy, and Greece have seen the largest increase in human trafficking. Most of these victims are between the ages of 14 and 18," DeGarmo continued.
Twenty-three of the victims were reportedly on a boat with 64 migrants who survived, Buzz Nigeria reports. According to CNN, 400 migrants were rescued from the Mediterranean over the weekend and brought to Salerno.
Authorities are investigating why all the victims were women. Although the possibility of sex trafficking is being investigated, Police Prefect Malfi noted that sex traffickers don't typically put all their victims on the same boat. The Agence France Press reports that Malfi stated: "Loading women onto a boat is too risky, the traffickers would not do it as they could lose all their 'goods' — as they describe them — in one fell swoop."
"They were on a dinghy that was also carrying men," Malfi added. Migrant expert Sine Plambech of Columbia University told the Agence France Press that it's more common for women to die when crossing the Mediterranean.
Coroners conducting the autopsies will look for evidence of physical and sexual abuse. According to the BBC, migrants pay "people-smuggling gangs" the equivalent of $6,000 to get to Italy. Reports of violence and sexual assault at the hands of the gang members are common.
Regardless of whether or not the deceased teenage girls were victims of sex trafficking, it's horrifying to learn what so many people endure in order to seek a better life. And, even the young women who aren't forced into prostitution upon arrival are at a high risk of sexual violence during the journey.
The International Organization for Migration's most recent tally reports that 2,839 migrants have lost their lives this year on the very same route as the 26 teens.
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